Friday, 13 April 2007


I'll confess. Two days ago, I searched an online dream dictionary. I'd been having a recurring dream about my house and room being on fire. As I have a particularly strange subconscious that actually delivers messages to conscious me, someone in the dream said, "You should probably look up fire, and find out what it means." And according to ancient symbolism and the internet- it meant a time of transition- a need to be re-inspired.

Well, like any fortune cookie, this fit my life by rote. I nodded at the computer screen and wondered where to go for the missing inspiration. I am visiting my hometown for a week very soon, but that trip is based around comfort and friends, not writing. Fact was, I was in need of something of a creative overhaul.

And then there was Paul Celan.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Yesterday, for those of you with the patience to read it, I sat down and struggled through a piece of prose that I posted on my blog. At the end of the piece I wrote about the curious silence that telling a story had given me. A stillness. Which was the thesis for nearly every paper I wrote at university- the inadequacy of language- poetry's ability to touch at something beyond its words. But to renew this kind of knowledge I need to hear the same thing said over and over again in different and interesting ways. Which is why Paul Celan's speech The Meridian came as something of a revelation for me with regards to theatre. In fact, I think it has temporarily changed my approach.

The essay is beautiful- at times harrowing,but pays off quietly when it challenges you. Celan begins with the obvious inadequacy of language in art. He quotes Georg Buchner, whose characer Lenz says,

As I was walking in the valley yesterday, I saw two girls sitting on a rock. One was putting up her hair, and the other helped. The golden hair hanging down, and a pale, serious face, so very young, and the black dress, and the other girl so careful and attentive. Even the finest, most intimate paintings of the old German masters can hardly give you an idea of the scene. Sometimes one would like to be a Medusa's head to turn such a group to stone and gather the people around it

This reminded me of the Joanna Newsom lyric from Mild Eyed Mender:

"And the signified butthead with the signifiers,

and we all fall down slack jawed to marvel at words,

when across the sky shoot the impossible birds

in a steady illiterate movement homewards."

Okay, I'm getting at something, but maybe I'm trying too hard to explain it. And Celan gets at something too, something impossibly important for a writer. Nature contains these moments of perfect stillness. It effortlessly creates a painting you'll never put to canvas, a drama that would be cheapened on stage, moments so beautiful they break your heart happen every day. If as humans we were able to do it as easily as nature does, well, we'd all be so overwhelmed we'd barely move. This is part of what love is about, isn't it? Looking at someone else and seeing that still perfection. That wordless truth, to borrow from Newsom, a kind of illiterate impossibility. Infinite and contained.

Celan explains it beautifully:

"Poetry is perhaps this: an Atemwende, a turning of our breath. Who knows, perhaps poetry goes its way - the way of art - for the sake of just such a turn? And since the strange, the abyss and Medusa's head, the abyss and automaton, all seem to lie in the same direction - it is perhaps this turn, this Atemwende, which can sort out the strange from the strange? It is perhaps here, in this one brief moment, that Medusa's head shrivels and the automatons run down? Perhaps, along with the I, estranged and freed here, in this manner, some other thing is also set free?"

A silence. An impossible explanation. A wordless stillness. The moment between exhaling and inhaling. We've all felt it- it's that quiet kind of resolution, resolution isn't the word, of course it isn't- but the great relief of a pause that is produced by worthy art.

I think my creative block had come formost from writing withtheaim of success, rather than from the aim of achieving this stillness, even for myself, as the writer. This turn of breath. I won't go so far as to say that without it you have created a craft rather than an art... but I will go so far as to say that I suspect this may be the secret. If you want anyone else to feel the turn, the stillness, you must feel it first. It will not come as a result of a formula, it will not happen because your best laid plans in a script begin to intertwine beautifully (though that is a different and equally breathless joy) it will not be forced because you are tired of writing. It will settle upon you like a layer of dust. It will ground you. And you will know to stop. Celan: "Enlarge art? No. On the contrary, take art with you into your innermost narrowness. And set yourself free."

I am interested in beginning to write with this feeling of stillness at heart. A friend of mine often quotes Ezra Pound when he said, "All poetry aspires to the quality of music." Celan, on the contrary says, " It is true, the poem, the poem today shows - and this has only indirectly to do with the difficulties of vocabulary, the faster flow of syntax or a more awakened sense of ellipsis, none of which should underrate - the poem clearly shows a strong tendency towards silence."

If theatre were more like poetry- if theatre were to accept that it is more closely related to poetry than it remembers- and even, in spite of its best efforts, is moving in the same circles- I am not suggesting iambic pentameter or dedicating all theatre to Shakespeare, not in the least! But aiming toward that same quality of stillness that poetry has always unashamedly aspired to. That's a play I'd like to see. Or write. (or write.)


Andrew Field said...

I'm not sure if I totally agree with you by the end there. Mainly because I stand by my annoyingly frequent quotation of Pound (if it even is Pound).

Poetry shouldn't aspire to stillness. To take the reductio ad absurdum this would mean that the most perfect poem would be nothingness - the the poets primary duty is merely stopping the audience for long enough to marvel at the staggering beauty of nature.

But art (and poetry) is more than nature. Indeed, in some ways it is the opposite of nature. It is about one's(either the poet, the reader, people in general) place within nature. Within the world we exist in. Nature is only a marvel of staggering beauty because we view it as such. Otherwise it would be quietly getting on with its business, without fleshy romantics wondering around getting in the way with their slack jawed agogity.

Stillness is needed in art of course it is. But only in the same way it is needed in music. Silence is great but we can't all be John Cage.

Take for example On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer. As I think I said to you the other day, one of the most staggering beautiful moments of stillness in art. But it is a moment, it is a musical pause. A moment of clarity that is only so because it is part of a greater whole. And what is that greater image - not nature itself but man response to, pumelled into silence by the magnificence of it and the limitless possibilities it seems to hold.

Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific—and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise —
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Deborah said...

Sorry mr. Field, but I stand by my point. For a medium that is rooted in words to aspire to the quality of stillness creates that space in between, that negativity in terms that is exactly where poetry lies. A truly good poem earns its stillness. "On first looking into Chapman's Homer", for example- is silent upon a peak in Darien so beautifully only because both Homer and Chapman have elevated that silence through words so that we understand it in all of its weight. Good poetry should aim to make the most of its stillness. Perhaps good music does the same- which does not make Pound and Celan mutually exclusive.

I would say that nothingness probably is the most perfect poem, but I am not confuscius or even Yoda. However, if either of them said it, intellectuals and Star Wars fanatics would weep at its truth.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

This comment comes awfully late I know, but since I'm currently in the process of writing a thesis on poetics I feel like I have to express my thoughts.

I feel like the keyword of the discussion is "nothingness". I like the way this blog's writer pin-pointed its role in Celan's Meridian. Yet I feel you don't go far enough on the kind of experience it is. Which, in turn, may leads to misunderstandings.

Here's my current state of thoughts on the subject :

Poetics is the experience of nothingness in poetry (or literature, or theater, etc.) This nothingness or stillness must not be thought in the terms of "void" or as a "lack/absence of substance". Why? Because the poetic moment is exactly the one where you're unable to link the experience you are undergoing to any kind of *meaningful* experience. Thus, what we describe as the experience of nothingness in the text is rather the experience of the Impossible, which is an experience of what is beyond words, but HAS (must have) yet to be expressed. Nothingness is achieved when the text successfully (or luckily?) put into words what still fails to be put into words. It is this paradox that defines poetics and nothingness.

Moreover, nothingness or "void" isn't a quality of the text as much as an effect on the reader/viewer's self (on his ego, or subjectum). It produces an opening of the self that dissolutes his individuality or subjectivity, thus opening new ways and new possibilities of experience. In a way, poetics give birth to the possibility of ethics.

I hope this comment can be in anyway worthful or insightful. Sorry if I sometimes don't make sense, I'm more used to write in french.

If you'd like to talk further on the subject I'd be glad to :

Have a good day!